Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
Elephant Memories

Book Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

Elephant MemoriesElephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family
Cynthia Moss

Elephant Memories is based on Cynthia Moss’s extensive fieldwork with the elephants of Amboseli National Park in Kenya from 1973 through 1986. She was a young researcher armed with a Smith College undergraduate degree, and after a brief apprenticeship in elephant research, went to Amboseli and plunged into full-time observation of the wild elephants there.

Amboseli National Park is on the southern border of Kenya with Tanzania, and comprises 150 square miles of habitat uniquely suited to support a large number of elephants. Several large swamps lie within the park borders and serve as a reliable water supply; forests provide shade, shelter and acacia trees for feeding; grasslands offer lush forage after the seasonal rains bring forth the tender new shoots. The park is large enough that the elephants spend most of their time within its borders; only during periods of drought are they forced to search more widely for adequate feed.

Over 600 elephants lived within the park at the time of the book’s writing. They were relatively safe from human predation and encroachment, though some elephants have been killed by poachers for the ivory in their tusks, and some have been wounded by young Maasi herdsmen attempting to hasten the onset of manhood by facing “ferocious” wild animals with their spears.

Elephants in the wild live in matrilineal family groups of up to 25 animals, led by the oldest and most experienced female. Male elephants stay with their mothers until they become independent at 8-10 years; in adulthood they wander alone or spend their time in the company of other bulls. A typical family consists of the matriarch, her young male and female calves, her adult daughters, and their calves. The matriarch leads the family through its daily routines of feeding, rest and socialization and uses her skills and experience to guide the family through challenges such as severe drought which require adaptation, change from regular routines, and problem-solving.

Elephants in the wild often live to be over sixty years old; females can bear calves well into their fifties. Females give birth every four years on average; during exceptionally wet periods when there is rich forage available, a calf may be born three years after its older sibling. During periods of drought females do not go into estrus; the elephants reproduce only when there is an adequate food supply. Populations of elephants in the wild naturally fluctuate in rhythm with prevailing ecosystem variables, particularly the presence of sufficient food and water

Cynthia Moss spent her first year at Amboseli becoming acquainted with the elephants. She photographed all the elephants in the park and learned to recognize each individual by the distinctive shape and markings of their ears. By patiently observing which elephants spent time together, she identified the distinct families that lived in the park. She came to see that particular families spent significant amounts of time together, thus forming “bond groups” or extended families. She also observed that the families controlled vaguely defined territories, and that, just as each individual in a family had a place in the dominance hierarchy, the families also clearly understood their place in the family dominance hierarchy. Families led by older, more experienced females tended to occupy the most choice terrain within the park.

As Moss studied “her” elephants, she came to know each individual, giving them all names that signified to which family they belonged. She spent her days moving about the park in her Land Rover – watching the elephants live their lives. She experienced the whole life cycle as she spent time with the elephant families – mating, births and deaths; friendship and strong filial bonds; the tremendous affection which the elephants showed towards their young, their family, and their bond group.

Over time, Moss’s staff grew to include other researchers which enabled the project to focus on a number of scientific studies that advanced what is known of elephant biology, social interactions, behavior, reproduction, maturation and development, and migration patterns.

Elephant Memories is a well-written, accessible account of an ongoing research project. Moss builds the readers’ interest in her elephant families by recounting details of their lives as they move through periods of drought and abundance; births and deaths; and family changes over time. By book’s end the reader is deeply engaged in the unfolding lives of these magnificent creatures, whose complex social organization is easy for humans to comprehend. Moss’s observations over 13 years provide a solid base of data to see the 600+ elephants in Amboseli National Park as unique individuals and family members, with friends and extended family relationships that are centered on nurturing the young calves on whom they shower great affection.

Moss’s research showed conclusively that elephant populations are self-regulating, fluctuating in response to the resources available in their ecosystem. This makes all the more horrifying the following news item: “South Africa announced Monday that it would allow the kiliing of elephants as a population control, a move strongly condemned by animal welfare groups. Beginning in May, the government will lift a 13-year ban on elephant culls, which usually are carried out by shooting entire herds, including youngsters, from helicopters.” (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 2008)

After reading Elephant Memories it is impossible to see elephants as anything other than highly evolved creatures who display many traits that we value in ourselves: filial loyalty; lovingly nurturing children; wisdom; grief and mourning; altruism; cooperation; problem-solving; playfulness and self-expression.

It is also impossible not to see the actions of the South African government “culling” the elephants, or the predations of poachers seeking ivory, as anything other than murder and genocide.

These wise, gentle, loving creatures deserve their place on the Earth. It is up to us to find ways to make it possible for them to go on living their rich lives.

Elephant Memories is an excellent introduction to elephant biology and behavior. Its story ends in 1986; I had to find out if the elephants were surving in 2008, with so many threats from human encroachment. According to Wikipedia, Cynthia Moss is still in Amboseli – as is a flourishing elephant population of over 1500 animals living in the Amboseli watershed.

Moss now heads the Amboseli Trust for Elephants. Its mission is described thus:

The Amboseli Trust for Elephants aims to ensure the long-term conservation and welfare of Africa's elephants in the context of human needs and pressures through scientific research, training, community outreach, public awareness and advocacy.

The elephants of Amboseli in Kenya are the most celebrated wild elephants in the world. Since 1972, close observation by Cynthia Moss and her research team has led to intimate knowledge of these intelligent and complex animals.

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